Saher Jafri, a Stony Brook alumna, is pushing the envelope on traditional henna designs. Instead of painting the art form directly onto the body as it is originally done, she sketches it out instead —intricate henna drawings of lips, faces, hair and whatever else inspires her — onto a digital tablet. The blueprints then are transferred onto t-shirts, hats and other accessories.
“Growing up, I did a lot of henna and that’s what kind of inspired me,” Jafri, a 23-year-old Indian artist and Muslim entrepreneur, said. “You don’t really see a lot of henna designs on mainstream clothes and sweaters and a lot of my friends have told me that’s what they like about my art, that I’m bringing something that they only see at South Asian events, displayed in new ways like on a pair of lips.”
Traditionally, henna is made from the powdered remains of crushed leaves from the mignonette tree mixed with water, creating a thick paste that is applied to the hands and palms in beautiful, intricate designs. When the paste is dry, the henna is peeled off and leaves behind a stain that ranges from an orange to a deep maroon hue. It is an ancient Indian and Islamic art form — two places that Jafri can trace her roots back to. She conceptualizes the henna art form into trendy art designs for today, something that she wouldn’t be able to do in Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia is home,” Jafri, who now lives in New York City, said. “But it’s so different from being here and being able to open a brand or start your art. Because over there, you’re not allowed to do that, like you can’t politicize anything or be as open as a woman.”
Jafri’s art is not political but it sometimes showcases faces. Her recent collection, “Snakes,” features a new t-shirt, called “Every Breath You Snake.” The design is of a woman’s face with a henna-patterned snake wrapped around her head. In Islam, it is haram, or forbidden, to draw faces under religious law. In Saudi Arabia, the country is ruled under sharia, or Islamic law.
“I do know that some conservative Muslims regard drawing faces as haram,” Jafri said. “I think a lot of women there [Saudi Arabia] feel restricted from being fully open and independent with their art or their words, and that’s just not right.”
But in New York City, Jafri says she does not have to worry about this rule. Despite her art not being directly influenced by Islam, her work has caught the attention of other Muslims in the fashion and media industries.
At an illMuslims event last year, an organization that puts together creative events for young Muslims, Jafri laid out her hats and t-shirts on a table to sell. She went to the event not knowing anyone there, but Mohammad Alam, a cinematographer interested in her work, came up to Jafri and asked if he could film a video of her hats.
“At the lower floor of the event, I saw this girl at this table with all these hats and I didn’t realize how cool they were until I saw that they were these all white intricately designed hats,” Alam said. “And they didn’t look like they were handmade, they looked like they were professionally done.”
They started talking, and now Alam is an acquaintance that Jafri recently worked on a video with to advertise her sneaker designs. Alam, who is also an internal medicine resident physician at St. Mary Mercy Livonia Hospital in Livonia, Michigan, says he likes to collaborate with creative people. “Some people you look at their art and you’re like who drew this?” Alam said. “And that’s how I felt with her art… God bless her.”
Another unlikely encounter came from an old high school classmate from Saudi Arabia. “One of these acquaintances I had in Saudi, who’s a photographer, reached out to me and said ‘Hey I love your hats and I want to do a portfolio type of shoot for you,’” Jafri said. “So, I sent her a free hat and she bought a hat too, and she did a lot of pictures and creative work for me. It’s someone I didn’t expect, I literally didn’t talk to her at all, and I think it’s really nice to see other people care about my work.”
Jafri has also used her art to support charities and help those in need. Just last year, the artist collaborated with a current Stony Brook student, Raeqa Mahmud, a rising senior biochemistry major. Mahmud is the founder of doodles4change, a nonprofit that sells sketches and uses the money to fund surgeries in Bangladesh. “Raeqa and I teamed up and started selling my work for both me and her nonprofit,” Jafri said. “We sold a few, divided the profits, and she got to her cause which was really cool, and I want to do more stuff like that to help people.”
But getting this kind of attention was not always this easy. Jafri had to figure out how to market herself and shorten her production time and costs. After graduating from Stony Brook University in May 2017, Jafri bought a plain white hat from Forever 21 and a black sharpie marker. She free handed a henna themed hat with minarets, dots and swirls — it took her three hours.
When she uploaded a photo of her hat to her Instagram page, SaherJafriArts, she received both positive and negative feedback. “I have this one friend who I can always count on to tell me what he thinks,” Jafri said. “Sometimes he tells me he doesn’t like my hats, and it’s funny because he actually critiques my work.”
Currently, Jafri is a marketing analytics graduate student and spends most of her time studying. She has to set time aside to work on her business, which is not only creating designs but doing social media and marketing.
Jafri’s products are a part of a niche market, she said. The biggest challenge for her has been marketing it to the right people. “It’s also a lot of labor, there’s small details that goes into creating the design,” Jafri said.
Despite these hardships, her passion for the craft keeps her going, she said. Some of her friends who are not Muslim have said that it is interesting how Jafri combined something like henna into Western culture.
Jafri has even received investment offers, including from a Stony Brook student, but for now she wants to keep her business as her own.
She said her work is not that profitable yet, because of the costs associated with shipping and the price she must pay to the e-commerce storefront she uploads her designs on. But for Jafri, it is more about the art and connecting with other Muslim millennials.
“You might think I’m wasting my time, but it’s how you look at it,” Jafri said. “I know that it’s not that easy for people to come into fashion when no one is representing their background or culture, and I want to see more Muslim and Desi artists and fashion designers who do amazing things.”